The Future of Our Universities

Dr James Kierstead
Insights Newsletter
17 May, 2024

The Future of Our Universities is now in the past. The long-awaited symposium, hosted by the Initiative, took place on Wednesday at the Royal Society Apārangi in Wellington. It brought together senior academics, politicians, and policy wonks for a day-long discussion of university reform.

The ongoing cuts at several universities loomed large. One speaker with experience in banking regulation argued that our universities’ finances are basically sound, with adequate liquidity and very low debt. Others warned that university balance sheets can create a false sense of security. Property assets, for example, are not easily realisable.

Many attendees argued that the university funding model is fundamentally broken. Government funding increases continually lag behind inflation and universities are unable to set their own prices in the form of fees. Meanwhile, New Zealand lags behind most of its OECD peers in research and development expenditure as a percentage of GDP.

Another topic that loomed large was mātauranga Māori (Māori traditional lore) and its place in university education. One speaker argued forcefully that what she called the ‘indigenisation’ of our universities undermines their fundamental purpose as truth-seeking institutions. Another insisted that indigenous traditions can preserve local knowledge, which can often be sensibly integrated into mainstream science.

A teacher of mātauranga Māori at primary schools shared that though he loved his ancestral culture, he also valued science, which he saw as a distinct endeavour.

The final topic that came up again and again was free speech. Several academics shared their experiences of feeling unable to express their views, or even of being disciplined for them by university managers.

For one speaker, it is a mistake to conflate free speech with academic freedom. She sees the latter as more specialised and believes that it applies only in academics’ areas of expertise. Others insisted that academic freedom and free speech have considerable overlap, with academic freedom best understood as an enhancement of the universal right to free speech.

Three politicians – Labour’s Deborah Russell, ACT leader David Seymour, and Minister for Tertiary Education Penny Simmonds – addressed the symposium. The day ended with a barnstorming run-through of the current state of American universities by the writer Jonathan Rauch, whose visit was sponsored by the Free Speech Union.

Universities are among New Zealand’s oldest institutions. Their present situation is not great. But though our symposium on The Future of Our Universities is now past, it engendered optimism that, with careful reform, the future of our universities can still be bright.

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